Dragonfly Thai [RESTAURANT REVIEW]
I regard every authentic ethnic restaurant as an outpost of civilization. Two civilizations, really – the one whose cuisine is presented, and our American culture that so enthusiastically embraces ideas from around the world. Those who don’t travel widely might not realize it, but Californians are probably the world champions at appreciating culinary diversity, and we have the Nepalese, Bulgarian, and Peruvian restaurants to prove it.
Not all of these exotic cuisines are represented on the Peninsula, but there are a few gems within reach. Among them is Dragonfly Thai, a relatively new restaurant on the north side of the Peninsula Center. They’ve only been open for a few months, but they set standards for authenticity and flavor that will be hard to beat. This is a bit surprising because owner Emily Tjakra featured the cuisine of Indonesia, her home country, rather than Thailand at her previous restaurants, the Banyan and Chakra. When I asked why the switch to Thai, she told me that her chefs at those restaurants were Thais, and this restaurant gives them a chance to show off.
And show off they do. The menu here covers Thailand’s greatest hits, the Bangkok-style dishes we’ve come to know and love like satay, spicy beef salad, and Pad Thai. Still, there is a lot of room for interpretation in these standards, since they’re made differently in various regions of Thailand. As we found, the food here covers a lot of ground within the spectrum of Thai cuisine.
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Since I had invited six members of my family to join me, we were able to try a fair number of dishes in each course. We started with a few standard items – vegetable spring rolls, crispy tofu, and grilled chicken satay, followed by a papaya salad and Tom Yum Gai soup. Spring rolls are the blandest items on any Thai menu, minimally spiced tidbits that can only be measured by how fresh the vegetables taste, how hot and crisp they are when they hit the table, and whether they have even a trace of grease. These passed all three tests with flying colors, and were more than just a mop for the sweet chili sauce that is always served on the side.
Crispy tofu is another item that is all about freshness and speed of service. When good quality tofu is flash-fried, it gets a golden-brown color and a delightful texture, but it must be eaten almost immediately. Obviously, this isn’t the best take-out item; for any of you who are planning to phone in an order as soon as you finish reading this, save it for a day when you can dine in. That said, you should order it then, because it’s a standout – crisp triangles of tofu that are crisp outside and incredibly moist inside, topped with crushed peanuts and a tangy sauce that is sweet and just a bit spicy.
The grilled satay was the first item that had much complexity of spice, skewers of chicken that had been marinated in cocoanut milk and Southern spices so that they were much more flavorful than the version that is now a standard at every cocktail party. Satay is frequently just chicken in a bland yellow curry, but this one had some real depth of flavor.
The first dish that had much of the heat that Americans associate with Thai food was the soup, a hot and sour chicken that always has ginger, lemongrass, and mushrooms. The citrusy lemongrass was accented here by a squeeze of lime, which lent a more tropical flavor to what is always a tangy, robust soup. The combination of tartness and the heat from the red chilies used in the broth was very refreshing. If the heat started getting to us, we could always have a taste of the papaya salad, which had the unique Southeast Asian characteristic of being cold in temperature but piquant in spicing. The shredded green papaya was combined with tomato and green beans –not traditional elements of Thai cuisine, but they worked quite well with the lime-based dressing that had enough chili and ginger to heat your tongue just a bit.
We had let Emily choose our main courses for us, and she picked garlic-pepper shrimp, tamarind fish, glass noodles with vegetables, and, to our surprise, barbecued pork. I had some very good barbecued pork while I was in Northern Thailand, but with all the exotic dishes that the kitchen had to show off, I didn’t expect her to suggest something so simple. As it turned out, this was a canny choice, because the pork here is something special. The seasoning was similar to a Vietnamese Five-Spice blend, with pepper, garlic, and star anise and a dash of citrus, and it was excellent all by itself or as a contrast to the seafood and vegetable items. By the way, Dragonfly’s menu is unusual in having very little pork for a Thai restaurant; pork is the principal meat in the northwest and center of the country, but more beef is eaten in the south and east. From the cooking styles, I’d guess that one of Dragonfly’s chefs is a southerner, or at least was very familiar with southern recipes.
The most famous of the Southern dishes is the Masamun curry, which actually means “curry in the style of Muslims.” Muslims are reputed to like their curries spicy, and this one had an assertive, complicated hotness that raised a sweat. The thick reddish-brown sauce was delicious, and we mopped up every bit with our rice. Of the other items we ordered, the garlic-pepper shrimp and glass noodles with vegetables were both tasty but not remarkably innovative, the standard dishes very well prepared. The standout was the tamarind fish, a whole fish battered with tempura, then served with a topping of bell pepper, onion, and a sweet and sour galangal sauce. Galangal root is often used with fish because the sweet spiciness is a natural complement to fish, and it certainly works well in this preparation. There are layers of texture, moist fish topped by crisp batter topped by thick, lightly sticky sauce, and it’s phenomenal. It’s also easier to eat than it looks, since the fish comes off the bone very easily, and after you finish one side, the whole thing flips without coming apart.
Since Dragonfly doesn’t serve alcohol (the tiny ten-table restaurant doesn’t have a license), we brought a Robert Hall dry rosé that suited the food nicely. Others at our table had Thai iced tea or boba drinks, which they consumed with evident satisfaction.
Dragonfly Thai is easy to miss, a small place on the end of a shopping center block, but the food is of a caliber that many fancy places might envy. It’s also inexpensive; all of our appetizers were under nine dollars, and the most expensive, the tamarind fish, was only ten dollars. It’s a very affordable place to try some very good Thai food, a dot of Southeast Asian culture and cuisine right in the center of the Peninsula.
Dragonfly Thai is at 50A Peninsula Center, off Silver Spur, in Rolling Hills Estates. Open daily for lunch and dinner, off-street parking. Small restaurant, wheelchair access OK, no alcohol license. Phone 310-265-8424.